According to The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Dahui Pujui, “As soon as the butcher lays down his knife, he becomes a Buddha then and there.” However, according to most sources the path to become a fully enlightened one is a process extending across many years and through many lifetimes. According to the Buddhist system, many practicing Buddhists still have not begun the path toward enlightenment. Those who have only heard the Dharma or just begun to practice contemplation are still classed as outsiders who have not yet reached the bodhisattva path.
Once someone has achieved a deep state of Dharma practice, they are considered to have begun the stages known as the “Ten Devout Minds.” In these stages, one works for purity of the six senses. The practitioner will reach a state where their senses are no longer controlled or seduced by sensory objects. Further, the functions of the sense organs are shared by all six. For example, the eyes will be able to see as well as hear, smell, etc. Those passing through these ten stages are still ordinary people, but are now considered insiders on the bodhisattva path.
The next three sets of stages, the “Ten Abidings,” “Ten Practices,” and “Ten Transferences” are said to take one immeasurable kalpa. A kalpa is a time period of various length, though here it refers to an extraordinarily long period of time as measured on the Earth. For a bodhisattva, however, it is thought that a kalpa passes in an instant. Those at these stages are still ordinary people.
During the first set of stages, the “Ten Abidings,” one realizes his own Buddha nature. Previously, the practitioner may have known this intellectually, but during these stages they grow into a direct realization of the fact. In the stages called the “Ten Practices” the practitioner will begin to put this experience into practice. In the stages of the “Ten Transferences,” the practices formed in the “Ten Practices” stages and the mental realization achieved in the “Ten Abiding” stages are merged.
When the “Ten Transferences” have been passed through, one is no longer an ordinary person; they have become a Noble One. Next is the set of stages called the “Ten Grounds.” Passing through the first eight stages will take another immeasurable kalpa. After passing through a stage of joy, the practitioner will become purified and no longer be able to become defiled. In the next stages, the Noble One increases in wisdom and enlightenment. After the tenth stage has been completed, the Noble One reaches the stage of “Equivalent Enlightenment.” The last two stages of the “Ten Grounds” and the stage of “Equivalent Enlightenment” takes up a final immeasurable kalpa.
After passing through the “Equivalent Enlightenment” stage, the Noble One reaches the stage of “Wondrous Enlightenment.” They have finally achieved Buddhahood and have escaped the cycle of death and rebirth. This end of a very long process is the goal of Buddhist practice.
Master Shen Yen, Orthodox Chinese Buddhism
Venerable Yin-shun, The Way to Buddhahood